Benjamin Bridge released their much-anticipated ’04 Blanc de Blancs last week. As has become custom, they invited by appointment small, like-minded groups to join owner and founder Gerry McConnell, wine-maker Jean-Benoit Deslauriers and chief consultant Peter J. Gamble to taste the results. The meeting spot was at Noble, a small, speak-easy style bar hidden in the basement of The Middle Spoon.

Gerry McConnell

Benjamin Bridge Founder Gerry McConnell

The vibe at Noble is suitably secretive and the ‘board-meeting’ set-up established an appropriate air of stateliness. (Though, a gripe if I may: the dim lighting, moody as it was, prevented a real look at the wine’s colour… and from getting a decent pic with my low-tech point-and-shoot!)

The cuvées of Benjamin Bridge have often been compared to the great houses of Champagne. But perhaps where BB is surpassing traditional Champagne methodologies – certainly those of the big houses – is in its nimble, Grower’s approach. All of BB’s bottlings have been site-specific and vintage to date. The grapes aren’t purchased from “all-over” and blended into a consistent house-style. Rather, they take an estate-focused approach: growing their own vines (or at least working very closely with their growers), crafting their own blends and bottling their own wines. They allocate time and resources to properly cultivate a terroir-driven product, carefully matching grape to place and meticulously monitoring activity in the vineyard. They are free to experiment in the winery (e.g. spontaneous and wild ferments) with the flexibility to meet the special needs of each project – all while interfering in the process as little as possible (which, as Jean-Benoit pointed out, is very much a conscious effort).

And as it turns out, Nova Scotia is not a bad spot to do it all in. We not only have a cooler climate than Champagne, but we often enjoy a longer ripening season, naturally lower cropping levels and higher grape acid levels. It was hinted at the tasting that perhaps the only other region besides ourselves and Champagne with similar conditions and potential is in and around the English South Downs – or, West Sussex and Hampshire (read: Nyetimber).

Peter Gamble Jean-Benoit

Peter Gamble and Jean-Benoit Deslauriers

The Benjamin Bridge story is an inspiring one. A ten-year project involving some of the best minds and hands in the business (including the late, legendary Raphaël Brisbois of Piper-Heidsieck who was surprised to even find grapes in Nova Scotia, let alone ones to rival those of his homeland). They had one agenda: to make the very best sparkling wines possible. Throughout the project they’ve shown an almost obsessive attention to detail and a relentless pursuit of quality that is quite admirable.

Also in the tasting lineup was the ’09 Brut and ’07 Brut Reserve (already sold out at the winery). 2009 was their last year for hybrids and as of 2010 only vinifera appear in their Méthode Classique program.

The ’04 Blanc de Blancs is of course 100% Chardonnay – harvested from one of the coolest growing seasons in the last 2 decades. It spent 9 years on the lees. What struck me immediately was how alive, yet balanced it was – buzzing with acidity and at the same time exceptionally soft. Beyond this, I will simply re-quote Jean-Benoit and won’t bore you with my tasting notes! This wine is as much about appreciating the effort involved in creating it, as it is in enjoying the results.

04 Benjamin Bridge Blanc de Blancs

’04 Benjamin Bridge Blanc de Blancs

“…brilliant pale gold colour with a fine persistent mousse. Complex aromas of white mint, key lime, and wet stones… The palate displays and array of bright citrus fruit and endless mineral undertones. This exquisite wine owes its brilliance to an extremely rare combination of richness and brightness and a superb balance of concentration and elegance.”
– Jean-Benoit Deslauriers

At $280 per bottle and with only 4 cases available for sale in NS (the rest going to the BB club, export and the family cellar) many will not get to try this remarkable sparkler. But, with an expected 15-20 years aging potential, this should give you ample time to find someone, somewhere with a bit in their cellar willing to share.

Hard as it is for me to make the shift from the warming, heady Red wines of Winter, Springtime does call for something a bit less serious. Rather than leap directly to Whites, though, I prefer to take a gradual approach via the Pink to make the adjustment a little easier.

The Pink Stuff

Blomidon Estate Winery Rosé

Blomidon Estate Winery Rosé

When it comes to Rosé, I am a bit selective. For me, the ideal template is undoubtedly Provençal: delicate, fruity, herbal. Insipid, sour, candy-like versions are unbearable, even with food (unless in a salad dressing). Unfortunately, Provence Rosé is hard to come by here in Nova Scotia, but wines sharing its profile can still be found if you take the time to look. Interestingly, one such findings is a local creation.

Blomidon Estate Winery recently released their 2010 Rosé – a blend of L’Acadie Blanc, Baco Noir and NY Muscat (a splash more Muscat than last year, I’m told). The colour is a healthy, coral pink with an entirely pleasant nose of strawberry, soft herbacious notes, rose petal and underlying lychee and blossom. The palate is lean, off-dry with lively fruit, bracing acidity and good backing minerality. The acid here is probably a bit more pronounced than that of a Provence rosé, but it’s still balanced and makes for an excellent food wine. Local seafood dishes simply prepared are a natural match. Mine, I had over a starter of local smoked salmon and fluffy creamy chevre on toasted baguette – it worked really well and started off the evening beautifully. Which is another good thing about rosé… by waking up the palate (rather than tiring it) it’s an excellent starting point for a wine-filled evening, if that’s on the cards.

Wine Journal Woes

July 24, 2010

Wine Journal

I keep a wine journal. A paper one. Much to the annoyance of family & friends I am rarely without one. I’ve filled several with tasting notes, labels and dribble marks of wines consumed over the last few years. Perhaps not surprisingly, this obsession has resulted in another fixation: optimum wine journal format.

Incredibly, the perfect wine journal is an elusive creature. One might think that with wine being around since 5000 BC, or thereabouts, wine journal design must be perfected by now… but no. Silly, impractical wine journal designs abound making shopping for a new one enough to drive a person to drink (and with no place to put one’s notes!)

Here are my thoughts on good wine journal construction:

1. Size. The size of the journal should be small enough for portability, but large enough to fit all your thoughts and scraps (e.g. labels). Think: book/novel sized. Teeny ones will fit in your purse/man-bag but so maddening to write in (and read from) that you will probably not use them.

2. Cover. The cover should ideally be made of some kind of wipe-able, durable material. Wipe-able, so that it stands up to spills and durable so that it stands up to transport and frequent access.

3. Layout. Simple is best – with the following considerations included:

a) Label pages. Ideally the journal contains pages for labels, positioned opposite the notes page so notes & label are viewable side-by-side. I think labels are an important aspect of note-taking and provide a visual cue for remembering wines better than the name alone. They’re also helpful (& more interesting) to others leafing through your journals while you’re cooking dinner.

Open Wine Journal

Example of wine journal without dedicated label page - I just stuck the label in there anyway.

b) Notes pages. Ideally the notes page should contain 6 fields: Name (at the top), Date, Varietal, Region, Vintage & Price (I usually write where I bought it here, too) with a spacious, free-form area for Tasting Notes. Anything beyond this is just extra noise and limits what you can write where. Numbered rating systems – unless you have a strict criteria upon which you consistently rate wines – are arbitrary and unreliable. Separate compartments for appearance/nose/palate/finish/food pairing etc. are unnecessary and constrict use of space.

c) Dividers. Initially, I was undecided, but lately I’ve been warming to the idea of dividers, or tabs to organise journal content into sections – e.g. Red, White, Fortified, etc. This is primarily for retrieval purposes (as anyone familiar with the pain of hunting for a specific wine in a 200-pg wine journal can relate to). Fixed dividers are inflexible since they dictate a set number of pages per category (they also define the category for you) but using a 3-ring binder-style journal with generic tabs solves this problem.

Open Wine Journal

An example of an easy, loose format with lots of room for notes, and a label on opposite page.

You can, of course go digital, and disregard all of this luddite mumbo-jumbo 🙂

Saint John, New Brunswick

Saint John, New Brunswick

Last week I spent a few days milling around Saint John, New Brunswick. My purpose was wine work – serving it, to be exact – and of course, drinking some too.

It’s been some years since I’ve professionally served anything to anyone (I won’t say how long exactly, but let’s just say Grunge was very big at the time). And the term “professionally” is probably a bit of a stretch as my serving duties mostly involved balancing beer pitchers on a tray and yanking drunk girls down off tables. So, I arranged with Peter Smit, owner of happinez wine bar, a few “refresher” shifts at his hugely popular haunt.

Some happinez wines

Some happinez wines

On the first day Peter and his staff showed me the ropes and patiently walked me through all of their inner workings – then set me loose. I was surprisingly nervous serving the first guests. I’d forgotten what it was like to wait on people how to do it properly (at one point I absent-mindedly collected some empty glasses by their rims which resulted in a finger-wave from Peter, “No. Always the stem”). Peter has decades of hospitality experience, training in Europe with the best of Hilton International and finishing as Director of food and beverage at the Drake Hotel in Chicago at a time when service levels were unparalleled. He also taught Hospitality and Tourism at the NBCC and carries through this top committment to service at happinez.

The wines at happinez are carefully and personally chosen by Peter and changed regularly. Open bottles are preserved with the Le Verre de Vin system following each pour. I liked the system – it was easy to use, fast and performed well (we tasted the opened wines each day to ensure there was no drop in quality). Glasses are all washed by hand (via the Bar Maid, triple-sink system), hand-polished and inspected under the light for spots (a strict procedure established by Peter who dislikes the noise of dishwashers and the residual odours they leave on glassware). Keeping on top of the ‘dirties’ was challenging, but an automatic dishwasher probably wouldn’t have helped much since the stemware still need polishing. This way, it is only slightly slower and appears to result in less breakage.

The environment at happinez is intentionally relaxed, and pressure-free. Guests are allowed to linger as long as they wish and are not nudged to buy more (“can I get you another?” is a no-no) nor are they pushed to pay-up. A friendly honours-based system governs tabs –  no credit cards. The guest’s name is hand-written on a notepad along with their order and when they’re ready to pay they come up to the bar to do so. This practice, of course, relies heavily on the honesty of both staff and patron, but I’m told that in nearly 5 years of operating no one has ever run out on the bill (that hasn’t come back the next day to pay).

happinez goers

happinez goers

All ages darkened the doorway (and the funky Hapito patio), from students to retirees to all generations in between. Most came for the wines by-the-glass (12 red, 12 whites) and custom tasting-flights. Local and organic charcuterie and cheese plates were gobbled up in numbers, too – goodies such as Barbizon and Tomme Blanche cheeses from Fromagerie Au Fond des Bois and Saucisse, Jambon and Paté from La Ferme du Diamant.

Most notably, and indeed, most importantly, everyone seems to love this wine bar which made working there a very pleasant experience.

Bila-Haut Occultum Lappidem

2007 M. Chapoutier Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem

But it wasn’t all work! Peter was kind enough to share a few wines from his cellar. The 2007 M. Chapoutier Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem, a Syrah, Grenache, Carignan blend from the Rousillon, was particularly nice. An intense, dark violet colour extending to the edge, and a lively complex nose of dark fruit, floral, liquorice and barnyard. In the mouth, full and round with prominent tannins that softened the longer it sat. Wonderfully balanced.

Viognier tasting

Viognier tasting

I also went out to Rothesay to visit friends Craig and Christine to lust over their gorgeous property and help them taste some Viognier (nine, to be exact). Comparing our notes revealed the three of us had common favourites – one being the 2008 Mission Hill Viognier from the Osoyoos Vineyard Estate in British Columbia’s Okanogan Valley. A pale golden colour with a brown/green tinge. Apples, mild apricot, blossom and a touch of lime citrus on the nose. Medium-bodied, good mouthfeel, slightly pettilant with great acid, and bright lime flavours. Loved it!

Viognier Lineup

Viognier Lineup

All in all, a great wine experience in Saint John. I hope to return very soon.

Nice to see more Portuguese wines popping up on the shelves, here. Tried a nice one the other night at my brother’s 30th: 2005 Callabriga Tinto Roriz from the Dão region. The meal was BBQ’ed Strip Loin accompanied by various side dishes brought by friends & family.  The steaks were cooked to perfection (my brother takes steak very seriously) and the smoky, peppery Callabriga was a wonderful accompaniment.

2005 Callabriga Dão Red

2005 Callabriga Dão Red

Callabriga is one of many brands produced by SoGrape Vinhos with the Dão Red being one of about twenty in the range spanning the regions of Altentejo, Dão and Douro. (Yep, they’re a large producer). At $28* it’s a bit pricey for everyday drinking but a wine worth checking out just the same.

Made with Tinta Roriz, Touriga Nacional and Alfrocheiro Preto grapes the colour is extremely dark, inky, almost black. A perfumey/smoky nose with pepper, blueberry, chocolate and earth.  Medium-full bodied, balanced and velvety smooth. I’ve not had a wine this easy to drink in a while. But possibly – just possibly – it was too smooth… (is there such a thing?) Comes down to personal preference, I suppose. Sometimes a bit of an edge is nice, too.

2005 Callabriga Dao Red


*At Port of Wines at time of this writing

Bring It.

June 24, 2010

Since 2007 it’s been legal to Bring Your Own (store-bought) Wine to Halifax restaurants. Establishments are left to choose whether to participate in BYOW and how much to charge you for the effort. A number of restaurants in town do take part, with corkage fees in the $10 – $25 range (Halibites has a list). Admittedly, I don’t take advantage of this service nearly enough – mostly because I’m too disorganised to plan ahead –  but this past weekend I gave it a go. A friend was visiting from out-of-town and we decided on dinner at Morris East – a wood-fired pizza restaurant on Morris Street that happily lets you BYO. I stopped by Port of Wines beforehand to pick up two wines I’d been meaning to try: 2007 Perrin & Fils Vacqueyras “Les Christins” (Southern Rhône) and 2007 Bodega Catena Zapata Malbec (Mendoza, Argentina).

Morris East (Credit: nsca on Flickr)

Now, a proper foodie would’ve snapped some pics of the delectable Charcuterie plate we shared, or captured at least one of the fine pizzas we filled our bellies with: Pepperoni & spicy banana peppers; Puttanesca, fresh basil & goat’s cheese; Housemade sausage with bacon, onion, pineapple & mozzarella … but I’m not a proper foodie (see note re disorganisation above).

I did get a picture of the wines though. (Albeit these were taken a few days later, after having gone back to the shop to re-buy the wines specifically for this photo, but what matters is that we have visual!)

Perrin & Fils Vacqueyras and Catena Malbec

Perrin & Fils Vacqueyras and Catena Malbec

The Perrin & Fils “Les Cristins” Vacqueyras was the favourite and only slightly shy of being too heavy for the pizzas. Someone described this wine as “racy” and I think that’s perfect. Deep, opaque, inky/black/purple colour with a little sediment. Notes of black cherry, black currant, leather, smoke, liquorice. Full-bodied, dense mouthfeel, slightly firm tannins (little young?), touch of bitterness and more black fruit. $29 at Port of Wines.

The Catena Malbec was a very close second. Rich burgundy colour, opaque. Intensely fruity nose, with cinnamon, raisin, mocha and clove. On the palate the fruit was big and powerful, but well-balanced with just enough acidity, softer tannins and slightly looser/mellower structure than the Vacqueyras. $24 at Port of Wines – great value.

BYOW is a great little program, especially if you dine out often. It’s an easy way to branch out and try different wines, and you save a little (or a lot) on the bill.

A hat-tip to the friendly BYOW table service at Morris East.

Notes On A Luddite

June 18, 2010

A couple of years ago I joined Twitter. I didn’t really want to. Geeky peer-pressure and name-calling (and I think, alcohol) forced me into it. In honour of my then technological resistance I created an account called @curlyluddite, and like most noobies I tentatively uploaded a faceless image as my avatar, and locked up my tweets.  Eventually, I grew cheeky and confident enough to shed the shackles of my shrouded Twitter existence and share my meanderings with the rest of the world. Off came the security locks and up went a picture of my real-life face. And it’s been pretty good so far. I’ve made some lovely connections and learned some handy things as @curlyluddite. But to the tweep who (rather seriously) informed me that I am “not really a Luddite” because I “have a blog and am on Twitter”: you are correct. I’m not really a Luddite. But like a lot of ironic/pointless nicknames this one has stuck, and it led me to a pretty special wine recently, 2004 Luddite Shiraz.

Luddite Shiraz

2004 Luddite Shiraz

Luddite Wines is based in South Africa’s Western Cape and opened its doors in 1999 with its sights set on making top-notch Shiraz. Their Luddism philosophy stems from a focus on self-sufficient and global conscious farming. 2004 was the first vintage they used their own Walker Bay fruit (though blended with the grapes of 3 other vineyard sites,  Malmesbury, Helderburg and Bottelry). I spied this particular bottle in Bedales, a small wine shop/wine bar hybrid near Spitalfields Market in London, and like a child seeing her name in print I squealed with recognition and bought it. The bottle has sat in my cupboard for over a year awaiting a decent occasion. Mercifully, a half decent occasion presented itself the other night. Good enough. We popped the cork.

Deep burgundy colour with blackish hues and a little sediment. The nose was rich and complex with stewed plumb, leather, tobacco, cinnamon and pepper. Solid & full-bodied in the mouth with smooth tannins and  nicely integrated fruit, alcohol and spicy acidity. My sense was that the fruit could’ve been a little more prominent, but what existed hung together well with everything else so, no matter. An intense, bold, yet very together wine. Liked it a lot.

4 vineyard sites, Malmesbury, Helderburg, Bottelry and for the first time our own fruit from the Luddite farm in Bot River.
Jasper & Wiley

Jasper and Wiley

A year or so ago I met a friend for drinks a few days prior to her moving abroad. Planning to be away at least a year she was rather beside herself over the issue of her two cats. “If I can’t find them a home I’ll have to give them to a shelter…” she whimpered. My heart panged but my (then-sober) brain interjected: “Oh no you don’t”. I nodded to myself and listened to my friend sympathetically, promising to help spread the word. As the night wore on and more pints were consumed, heart strings gradually squelched logic and I pledged to take said cats off her hands (should no one else want them).

Needless to say, the cats, Jasper and Wiley, were mine a few days later. And for over a year they snoozed and  shed on nearly every surface of my flat, tore my window screens, picked my furniture and barfed on my floor. If I wasn’t buying wine for neighbours to feed them while I was away, I was running to the store in the wee hours to get them food, or flea treatments, or cat litter, or whatever else they needed. But… despite the financial and domestic inconveniences, I developed quite a soft spot for the little guys. Jasper, the alpha male, was sensitve and pensive but loved to cuddle. Wiley was more aloof but liked the occasional pat and had a curious fondness for hanging out in the shower. They killed the odd mouse for me, growled at strangers and were always glad to see me.

2004 Chateau Ksara

2004 Chateau Ksara

So, as you may have gathered from my wistful prose, Jasper and Wiley are no longer with me. My friend has since returned from her nomadic spree and took them back this weekend. I’d known the day was coming for some time, but I was not prepared for the emotional upheaval that came with stuffing their little bodies into the cat carrier and handing them over. OH, IT WAS HARD. The tears flowed and noses ran as my friend thrust a bottle of 04 Chateau Ksara into my fist as a thank-you.

I hereby raise a glass of Chateau Ksara to my furry friends, Jasper and Wiley:

May all your storms be weathered. (they detest disagreeable weather)
May all that’s good get better. (expensive tinned tuna water, not the cheap stuff)
Here’s to life.
Here’s to love.
Here’s to you.*

The Ksara, I should mention, was wonderful. A blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot. I am pretty partial to Lebanese wine, and this is one of the better glasses I’ve had in a while. Notes:

cat eyes
A deep burgundy colour with slight browning/bricking at the edges. Starting to show age.
cat nose Intense ripe blackberry, black currant with liquorice, star anise, tobacco and cedar.
cat mouth Medium-to-full bodied. Smooth, velvety texture with a warm chutney-like spice, soft tannins, good acidity and perfectly integrated fruit. Very balanced.

*Here’s To Life by Shirley Horne

30% Carignan, 30% Cinsault, 20% Mourvèdre, and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon
2010 California Wine Fair

2010 California Wine Fair

The Halifax Society for American Wines held their annual California Wine Fair last night at Canada’s Immigration Museum, Pier 21. Pier 21 is an austere, but beautiful building refurbished in 1999 to commemorate its past life as Canada’s port of entry to over a million immigrants from the late 1920’s to the early 70’s. It’s a large, open, airy space with spashes of colour, exposed brick and wide open views of the harbour. A remarkable history and a refreshing setting for a wine show.

2010 California Wine Fair, Pier 21

2010 California Wine Fair, Pier 21

Clearly, there is no shortage of Cali wine lovers in Halifax. The show was very well attended with a good mix of professionals and enthusiasts of all ages. Over 250 wines were on show, most of which were either available for purchase in Nova Scotia already, or coming soon. Viognier & Chardonnay appeared to be the prevailing Whites, with Bordeaux blends topping the Reds. French-looking labels were the fashion as were French-sounding vineyard names a la Clos and Chateau. Big brands like Gallo and Mondavi were on hand, but so too were lots of interesting, lesser known players.

Mondavi

Mondavi Table

So, impressions of the wines overall? Officially, I cannot tell you as I did not try them all, but having made a decent dent there was, I felt, a lot of same-sameyness to most I tried. But not all. Here were some personal highlights:

Whites:

  1. Birichino Malvasia Bianca, 2008, Monterey. Very muscat-like. An incredibly floral nose, with peach, melon and citrus. Surprisingly dry, slightly grassy, limey palate with crisp acidity. Really pleasant.
  2. Sonoma Cutrer “The Cutrer”, 2005 Chardonnay. The marketing sheet says its vines were planted ‘on an ancient sea bed’… which might explain the calcium/briney like character I was getting on this wine. If they oaked this, I couldn’t smell or taste it. A very clean, crisp, mineral style of Chardonnay that made me think of Chablis.
  3. Domaine Chandon Brut Classic. My favourite of the three. Made using méthode traditionnelle this is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Aromas of almond, spice and biscuit. Fine bubbles, apples and pear on the palate, finishes dry.
Kenwood Artist Series, Cab Sauv

Kenwood Artist Series, Cab Sauv

Reds:

  1. Ferrari-Carano Merlot, 2007, Sonoma County. Full-bodied, soft and round with rich, plummy fruit, earth, cedar and just enough acid to balance it all out. None of that overpowering oakiness.
  2. Etude Pinot Noir, 2007, Cerneros. A very classy Pinot. Lively red cherry, mushroom and barnyard notes with a touch of vanilla. Light-bodied with dark cherry earthiness on the palate. Perfectly balanced.
  3. Kenwood Artist Series, Cab Sauv, 2005, Sonoma County. My favourite of the three.  Intense black currant, cassis, mint and liquorice with slight leather. Full-bodied with green, grippy tannins, black currant and great acidity. Maybe a tad young but still very drinkable.

Super Nova

May 6, 2010

2009 Benjamin Bridge Nova 7

Benjamin Bridge, a small Nova Scotia winery in the Gaspereau River Valley, released their 2009 Nova 7 yesterday. Following the sell-out success of the 2008, I was eager to try this year’s result so off I skipped to Port of Wines to procure myself a splash.

The scene on arrival looked promising: all in attendance seemed pleased with their bubbly bounty – lots of chatting, nodding heads and rosy cheeks. Jean Benoit, the winemaker, wasn’t present but consultant Peter Gamble was on hand to answer questions and tout the wares. He described the wine in great detail, contrasted it with the last vintage, and alerted us to the upcoming 2004 Brut Reserve and Blanc de Noirs classic-champagne-method sparkling wine due to be unveiled this autumn (read more from Sean Wood on that). So, what of the Nova 7? I thoroughly enjoyed it. And at 7.5% alcohol it’s possible to enjoy larger than normal volumes and still maintain your dignity.

Blend: NY Muscat, Perle of Csaba.
Appearance: Pale gold, fine bubbles.
Nose: Intensely aromatic. Lychee, orange and melon with orange blossom and honeysuckle florality.
Palate: Lively fizz, light-to-medium bodied, slightly sweet with balancing acidity. Peach and orange on the finish.

Delicious! Looking forward to trying this with a spicy curry or maybe some Mascarpone & fresh berries… Hmm.